Letters To A Young Poet

Written By: Ranier Maria Rilke (Bohemian-Austrian)

Vocation: Poet

This wonderful book is only about 125 pages long. It is by all means what I would call a hot pepper! Meaning, it is short in length but powerful in delivery and content. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve read it several times over the years. It’s on the “sorry I can’t lend you my copy but I’ll buy one for you list” ha ha! The first time I read it I could not put it down. I started in the morning and read the entire text that same day.

In this book, Rilke is exchanging letters with a younger man who wants advice about his poetry and writing. It sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Ask a successful poet to critique your work in hopes that you will become a better writer or poet. Well, that only works if the person whom you’re inquiring with opts to respond in kind. Rilke, who seemed to be quite physically ill at times, did in fact respond to the inquirers letters. However, Rilke’s responses were probably not what the inquirer had expected.

Masters of a craft, or of living, often have ways in responding that raise more questions in you than they first appear to answer. Imagine going to a doctor for treatment of a symptom. What would you do if the doctor responded by inquiring whether you understand health? Or asked you why you believed you needed to be treated at all when you clearly don’t feel well? It could be confusing and frustrating. Here, Rilke takes the inquirer to another level. A level beyond being a poet or writer. He does make a few general observations about the writer but not his content specifically.

He challenges the aspiring poet to reflect on more important and bigger questions. Rilke was not particularly interested in offering his subjective opinion on the actual writings. One of my favorite parts of the book involved a statement Rilke made in a letter. Paraphrasing a bit he stated “one must not ask if I am a good writer or how I can improve. One must ask only one question. Must I write?” He then said if the answer is anything other than an absolute and resolute “yes” that one should abandone writing altogether. This was so powerful to me! This question, “must I write?” completely transcends the entire process of how to write. If there is any other reason that you write other than you must Rilke says leave it!

I took this powerful question and applied it to my own life. I think that we can all (if we’re brave enough) pose this question to ourselves. The only difference being the word(s) that follow “I” in the question. In my case, it was “must I be free?” Not whether is was desirable to be free. Not if it’s better to be free. But, must I. I reflected on how I had defined freedom for me and decided “yes, I must be free.” To this day, I have maintained this “yes” through thick and then. I made the choice that my soul said I must. Now, I hope that you will decide to read this book and possibly venture to ask yourself the question: “must I…?”

-Sensei Derek Fletcher


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